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[This is the print version of story]

Too Deadly That Dress

Maureen Fuary

Written by Maureen Fuary, Clifton Beach, Far North QLD.

Maureen Fuary was born in North Queensland, was raised in many parts of Australia and returned to the north as a young, fresh graduate of anthropology to take up a position at James Cook University. There she was encouraged to enrol in a PhD and thus began her long and continuing association with the Torres Strait.

This semi-fictional story is her first attempt to write in a non-academic way. She wrote a version of it after returning to Cairns from a visit to the tiny island on which she undertook fieldwork. She had participated in the tombstone unveiling of her adoptive mother there and was full of conflicting emotions that just didn't lend themselves to academic writing... thus this story emerged.

Too Deadly That Dress

She wandered sleepily onto the veranda, cupping a hot mug of tea. The sounds of people stirring, readying themselves for another day, filtered through her brain. The slight sting of the tropical sun brought with it the pungent, sweet smell of rain just-fallen on the pockmarked sand.

It was still early but already the village was beginning to hum. As Emily emerged from the kitchen, not-yet-quite-focused, Saali and Manella acknowledged her entry into their domain. They were cousins, 'sisters', lounging about on falling-apart chairs, at ease yarning and just being together. Before she could return their greeting, Saali, broadly grinning, declared, 'Too deadly that dress!' Emily's face melted into a smile as she remembered: Mama Annie's dancing dress; she had slept in it. Yeah, it was awesome.

She'd changed into the dress after the all-night feasting and dancing before crawling into bed, at daybreak, with her husband. They were sharing a bedroom with their children and, in that zone of comfort, she'd settled on the sagging mattress, wrapped up in the love of Mama Annie who had mothered her, the love of her husband Joseph, and of their children sleeping soundly.

Exhausted, she'd drifted in and out of semi-sleep, the pedestal fan cranking chunkily from side to side, barely keeping the mozzies at bay and only just moving the stifling air around in torpid waves. Eventually though she'd slept soundly and surfaced a few short hours later to the sounds of happy kids playing noisily outside and a dog yelping as it was kicked away from the earth ovens.

They were among hundreds of family and friends who had travelled to the island especially to help celebrate the end of mourning for Mama Annie. They had come for her tombstone unveiling, that emblematic Torres Strait tradition, when Mama Annie's loved ones released her spirit. Emily had participated in many unveilings but this was different. This was for her 'mother'. They had shared a part of each other's lives, had slipped on the roles of mother and daughter as easily as a loose fitting island dress; a dress sometimes breezy and comfortable and sometimes annoyingly large and restrictive. The very same sort of dress she was wearing now.

They had laughed and argued, had fun, dropped their guard and grappled with those universal issues of motherly control and daughterly resistance. As her white daughter, Emily had needed to be taught, protected, loved and cared for, and Mama Annie had revelled in the affection and respect she'd gained from Em. They had cautiously then seamlessly crossed boundaries: between self and other, between black and white, between cultures, between generations. They had been windows into each other's seemingly incompatible worlds.

On this trip, Emily stayed close to where they had shared their lives. From the veranda, she looked onto the backyard, recalling that time when, seven years ago, stricken with sorrow, she had vowed never to return. Em had returned to the island of course but only for short periods and never again with a full, excited heart.

Saali and Manella's yarns faded into the background as memories of the best times with Mama Annie came flooding back: walking, yarning, laughing, drinking, picnicking, dancing, gardening. And boy, could Mama Annie fish! She regularly boasted of Em's fishing prowess but they both knew it was Mama Annie who kept them in fish.

Emily found herself quietly singing that song about a certain place, feeling the dance move through her. Mama Annie had taught her this song and dance on one of their fishing expeditions. They had laughed with gusto, belly laughing uncontrollably at each other's exaggerated performance. This was Mama Annie's signature song, the one she consistently danced, after a few drinks, on private and public occasions. She had a wicked sense of fun and humour and Emily would have loved to perform this cheeky dance last night, wearing Mama Annie's dancing dress, the dress given to her after the unveiling.

'Hey sis, what are you thinking?' ventured Manella. Emily forced herself back to the present but didn't answer: it was self-evident; they all felt it. It didn't need naming. After an easy silence, Saali picked up the thread: 'Mama's happy now. She's got her house, her tombstone in the village of the dead. The feasting was huge and we danced 'till daylight for her. We still feel sad when we think of her but it's over now. We can move on.' Saali blotted a steady flow of tears onto a towelling scarf draped over her shoulder and Manella, seizing the opportunity in true island style, jumped up and, with a full-bodied laugh, said, 'Let's go fishing.'

It was true, Em thought. Grief and joy had been the seesawing emotions of the week. The grief wasn't finally put to bed, as she had imagined it would be, yet nor was it a cloying presence. It just was. They had moved forward to fill but not forget the gap in their lives that was Mama Annie. It would never be over but everyone could rest and live in peace now.

'Hang on a sec,' she replied, 'I'll just go and grab a line.'

Too Deadly That Dress audio version read by Miria Kostiuk

© 2009 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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